HARVEY, La. —Whether dribbling a basketball or identifying obscure Latin or Greek roots, Zaila Avant-garde doesn’t show much stress. Now she has become the first African American winner in the 96-year history of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
The 14-year-old from Harvey, Louisiana, breezed to the championship on Thursday night. The only previous Black winner was also the only champ from outside the United States: Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998.
On Thursday night, Zaila Avant-garde was all smiles as she became the victor of the competition, winning with the word “murraya“ (a small citrus shrub native to regions in South Asia and Australia). She was one of 209 competitors.
Only one word gave her any real trouble, “nepeta,” a genus of Old World mints, and she jumped even higher when she got that one right than she did when she took the trophy.
“I’ve always struggled with that word. I’ve heard it a lot of times. I don’t know, there’s just some words, for a speller, I just get them and I can’t get them right,” she said. “I even knew it was a genus of plants. I know what you are and I can’t get you.”
Avant-garde’s win is also historic as she is the first African American student to win the competition, along with the first person from Louisiana and first home-schooled student.
She previously competed in the 2019 spelling bee and tied for 370th place, but came back following a year off due to the pandemic. Zaila will take home more than $50,000 in cash and prizes.
This year, the spelling bee was held in Orlando, Florida.